Sunday, June 8, 2008

Separation of church and state, 1646

In August 1646 John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, noted that the ministers of the United Colonies (MBC, Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven) were meeting at a synod. But the powerful church of Boston, Winthrop noted, did not send its mighty and respected minister (John Cotton) or teacher (John Wilson).

"Boston [took] offence," wrote Winthrop. "[They] inferred that this synod was appointed by the [church] elders to make ecclesiastical laws to bind the Churches and to have the sanction of the civil authority put upon them, whereby men should be forced under penalty to submit to them. Whereupon they concluded that they should betray the liberty of the Churches if they should consent to such a synod."

This is the polar opposite of what most Americans believe the Puritans' stance toward church and state to be.

Winthrop is saying that it is completely unacceptable to have civil laws about religion, because then two bad things happen: the state controls the church, and citizens can be punished in civil courts for their religious choices.

We like to think that Puritan officials were constantly poking into peoples' private lives. There was poking, to be sure, but it was done strictly by ministers and elders, not by lawmakers. (And most of that poking was at the urging of a public that was extremely dedicated to maintaining the Puritan system.)

The General Court was the Puritans' civil legislature. It had no authority over the churches. In turn, the clergy could not become members of the Court. Church and state were completely separate, and while there was some wavering on this point, the Court's authority was stronger than the churches' authority.

One of the things the MBC Puritans feared most was that the English government would take control of the colony and begin administering the churches, making laws about church policies and making clergy appointments.

Certainly the Puritans believed church polity was crucial to any working society. But church polity was held totally separate from civic politics; they were two different worlds. This attitude remained firmly entrenched in New England for centuries to come.

8 comments:

Brad Hart said...

I think that it is also important to remember the fact that the Puritans pushed for this separation not because of their desire for equality, freedom and division between church and religion, but because of their desire to ensure that all "heathen" members of society did not enter their faith. Puritans believed that only those who had experienced God's grace could partake in the Lord's Supper. As a result, they worked very hard to ensure that the "unsaved" were kept from such practices.

The Separatists took this even further. Roger Williams, for example, believed that an individual who had not experienced God's grace should be prevented from even gathering with the elect.

This separation came out of the desire to ensure the religious purity of Massachusetts and of the elect, not to create a separation of church and state as we think of it today.

Brad Hart said...

By the way, great post! I'm very glad that we have somebody who is interested in the history BEFORE the Revolution. I find that period to be even more interesting! Keep it coming!

Pinky said...

I can't speak directly to the authenticity of the history you are considering here; but, it is probably correct.
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But, the space given for the subject doesn't allow for you to do justice to the subject. The idea, for example, you bring up of "God's Grace" being a standard for fellowship is very complex and involves the preachings of Whitfield and Jonathon Edwards and the Great Awakening.
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The general population was very involved in those happenings.
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Good article. Thanks.

Lori Stokes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lori Stokes said...

Hello Brad and Pinky!

The complexity of Puritan theology is something I'll allude to as I go along, but it won't be my focus here, since we're looking at religion and politics at this site.

Whitfield and Edwards and the Great Awakening come much, much later than the period I'm writing about; they were the final phase of Puritanism in the mid-1700s.

Briefly, the Massachusetts Puritans welcomed all those who wanted to embark on the long process of preparing themselves if they were to receive God's grace. So any "sinner" could enter the Puritan church. But, as Brad points out, only those who had finished that long process, and made a public description of their journey and its success, and then had that public statement accepted by their individual church, could take communion.

I don't believe it was to keep the church pure from sinners that church and state were separated, but to keep the church pure from state interference, as Winthrop says.

Let's keep talking!

Pinky said...

I only meant to point out the complexity of what it meant to be in "God's Grace" as it was put.
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And, doesn't that lead straight to the Great Awakening?
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But, weren't the questions of God's Grace involved at the core of Puritan beliefs--are they not why the Puritans left England?
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Are you working with some outline here?
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CGDH said...

I'm not sure it's entirely accurate to say that the General Court had "no authority over the churches." Anyone who wished to establish a church in Massachusetts Bay had to apply to the General Court for permission to do so.

In 1636, after most residents of Dorchester removed to Connecticut, the town tried to start a new church but the General Court denied their application because the men of Dorchester, "had builded their Comfort of saluation upon unsound gronds: viz: some upon dreames & ravishmentes of spirit by fittes: other upon the reformation of their lives, others upon dutyes & performances" (Winthrop's Journal, April 1, 1636). In this case, the General Court rejected the request not because they didn't want people to settle or because they thought a new church was unnecessary, but because the people of Dorchester did not pass the General Court's religious test.

Your larger point stands, and it is an important point to make. Still, any absolute statement such as "completely separate" is probably too strongly worded.

Lori Stokes said...

Your point is a good one; however, I do have to quibble a little on a minor point (I am a historian, after all!). It wasn't that the Dorchester church didn't pass the GC's religious test, but that the GC recognized that the Dorchester church did not live up to the established tenets of New England Puritan church polity. The test to pass was one given by the church, not the state. The state merely made official notice of failure to pass the church's test.

It's also interesting to note the reason the church was turned down was that it seemed to be based on a covenant of works ("dutyes and performances"). That same year, 1636, Anne Hutchinson would begin agitating in Mass, claiming that all Mass churches were based on a covenant of works, and therefore invalid.